“Safe spaces” and “no platforming”: the increasing propensity of many university students to simply shut down and block out views which they disagree with is deeply concerning.
Over recent years, free speech has come under attack. The lines in the sand have been drawn predominantly at universities by students – a generation to which the author of this piece belongs – and those under fire are plenty. Academics, progressives, conservatives and nationalists, amongst others, are repeatedly attacked by hordes on social media, and at campus debates simply for having an opinion which doesn’t line up with their own.
By definition, freedom of speech is the right to express one’s own views and is protected in the UK by the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information.” Similarly, the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 19 that “everyone has the right to freedom of… expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information.”
Predominantly and sadly, the curbing of free speech appears to be a generational issue. Whilst the current university trend of “no-platforming,” (that is, staging a walk-out when a speaker you disagree with takes the stage or not allowing them to speak at all) was once reserved solely for fascists and outspoken racists, it appears today that anybody who disagrees with the principles of the ultra-left is in danger. Peter Tatchell, a prominent social justice campaigner, is perhaps the most high-profile recent victim. Many other genuine, respectable speakers have been “no-platformed” – Nick Lowles, founder of Hope Not Hate, an anti-fascist, anti-racist campaign group set up to fight against the politics of the British National Party, was no-platformed on the ridiculous accusation that he is Islamophobic (he dared to condemn Islamic extremism). Anybody who disputed the accession of Malia Bouattia to the NUS presidency was slammed as Islamophobic and sexist. This is not, as some proponents of “safe spaces” argue, a form of exercising freedom of speech. Indeed, it is the very opposite – a point blank refusal to debate and the shutting down of the victim’s individual liberties.
This idea that we have a “right not to be offended” is a deeply held conviction amongst many of our generation. Naturally, politeness should be the usual inclination when stating your views, but the refusal to recognise other doctrines and opinions to your own is stifling of debate and therefore stymying of progress, not to mention a blatant attack on civil liberties. Politics is the addressing and resolution of conflicting viewpoints – ignoring the opposition is not only immature but also creates a stalemate.
Rich debate leads to progress, political transparency, and press freedom. The original idea of “safe spaces” stemmed from a desire for politeness and civility but the enforcement of such spaces, either by the state or by typically student-led movements, is stymying of discourse and a step backward from what founders of liberal democracies, such as the American Founding Fathers, undoubtedly envisioned. Benjamin Franklin stated that free speech is a principal pillar of a free government, and that when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.
Of course, there are certain fundamentalist views that are undesirable, to say the least (old-fashioned views that a woman’s place is “in the home,” or Islamic extremism, for instance). These views however, should be aired, debated and “ridiculed” and not just naively swept under the rug with the view to make them go away. Blatant hate speech which incites violence and presents an imminent danger to others should of course remain illegal, but it is when the establishment and the mainstream ignore certain sentiments that distasteful views start to thrive and the elite appear out of touch.
Recently, the attack has grown even more personal. 23 June saw the historic vote for the UK to leave the European Union. On social media, the 52 per cent of the electorate who voted to leave were condemned by students and young people as racist, greying bigots who don’t understand how the world works by many close-minded “Remainers”. The fact that Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove had won a mandate for a different strategy was decried by many young people – oblivious to the fact that a democracy means a vote for the elderly as well as themselves – as a vote against the rest of the world.
This attitude of “no platforming” and “safe spaces” is creeping its way into the rest of society, and, as our generation begins to grow up, the relative forced safety of student union debating societies, will inevitably be crammed down the throats of the more free-thinking amongst us. We cannot let our own desire for comfort erode the rights and privileges that people dreamed and died for just a few centuries ago.
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